Forecasters say a hurricane about to hit the US is “unsurvivable”.
Hurricane Laura strengthened on Wednesday (local time) into a menacing Category 4 hurricane, raising fears of a storm surge that forecasters said was capable of sinking entire communities.
Authorities implored coastal residents of Texas and Louisiana to evacuate and worried that not enough had fled.
The storm grew nearly 70 per cent in power in just 24 hours to a size the National Hurricane Center called “extremely dangerous.”
Drawing energy from the warm Gulf of Mexico waters, the system was on track to arrive late Wednesday or early Thursday as the most powerful hurricane to strike the US so far this year.
National Weather Service meteorologist Benjamin Schott told a news conference there could be a wall of water “over two storeys high” which is “very difficult for most to conceive”.
“But that is what is going to happen,” he said.
"The word 'unsurvivable' is not one that we like to use, and it's one that I've never used before.”
University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy said the hurricane “looks like it’s in full beast mode”.
“Which is not what you want to see if you’re in its way,” he said.
Residents ignoring evacuation orders
One major Louisiana highway already had standing water as Laura’s outer bands moved ashore with tropical storm-force winds. Thousands of sandbags lined roadways in tiny Lafitte, and winds picked up as shoppers rushed into a grocery store in low-lying Delcambre.
With time running short, both Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards fretted that the dire predictions were not resonating despite authorities putting more than 500,000 coastal residents under mandatory evacuation orders.
In Lake Charles, Louisiana National Guard members drove school buses around neighbourhoods, offering to pick up families. Just across the state line in Port Arthur, Texas, stragglers boarding buses were few and far between.
Mr Abbott warned that families who do not get out of harm’s way could be cut off from help long after the storm hits.
"The power of Hurricane Laura is unprecedented, and Texans must take action now to get out of harm's way and protect themselves," he said.
"The conditions of this storm are unsurvivable, and I urge southeast Texans to take advantage of these final few hours to evacuate."
Unsurvivable storm surge with large and destructive waves will cause catastrophic damage from Sea Rim State Park, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana, including Calcasieu and Sabine Lakes. This surge could penetrate up to 30 miles inland from the immediate coastline. #Laura pic.twitter.com/bV4jzT3Chd— National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) August 26, 2020
The National Hurricane Center kept raising its estimate of Laura’s storm surge, from three metres just a couple of days ago to twice that size — a height that forecasters said would be especially deadly.
A Category 4 hurricane can cause damage so catastrophic that power outages may last for months in places, and wide areas could be uninhabitable for weeks or months.
The threat of such devastation posed a new disaster-relief challenge for a government already straining to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Among the parts of Louisiana that were under evacuation orders were areas turning up high rates of positive COVID-19 tests.
Laura producing 225km/h winds
By Wednesday afternoon, Laura had maximum sustained winds of 225 km/h as it churned about 320 kilometres from Lake Charles, moving northwest at 26km/h. Forecasters predict winds will reach at least 233km/h winds but may weaken slightly before landfall.
Joel Cline, tropical program coordinator at the National Weather Service, encouraged people to listen to warnings.
“Heed the advice of your local authorities. If they tell you to go, go! Your life depends on it today,” he said.
“It’s a serious day and you need to listen to them.”
On Twitter, President Donald Trump also urged coastal residents to heed local officials.
Hurricane warnings were issued from San Luis Pass, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana, and reached inland for 322 kilometres. Storm surge warnings were in effect from Freeport, Texas, to the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Entire towns could be submerged
Forecasters said storm surge topped by waves could submerge entire towns. Water was already rising in the small Louisiana community of Holly Beach in the imperiled Cameron Parish, which forecasters have warned would be part of the Gulf of Mexico after the storm came ashore.
Mr Edwards lamented that the impending storm meant suspension of community testing for COVID-19 at a crucial time — as elementary and secondary schools in Louisiana are opening and students are returning to college campuses.
“We’re basically going to be blind for this week,” the governor said, referring to the lack of testing.
Laura is expected to dump massive amounts of rain as it moves inland, causing widespread flash flooding in states far from the coast. Flood watches were issued for much of Arkansas, and forecasters said heavy rainfall could arrive by Friday in parts of Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky. Laura is so powerful that it’s expected to become a tropical storm again once it reaches the Atlantic Ocean, potentially menacing the Northeast.
Even before dawn on Wednesday, officials in Austin, Texas said the city had run out of free hotel rooms to offer evacuees and had begun directing families fleeing the storm to a shelter nearly 320km farther north. In Texas’ Hardin County, which has more than 57,000 residents along the coast, officials warned that anyone who tried riding out the storm faced days or weeks without electricity.
Becky Clements, 56, evacuated from Lake Charles after hearing that it could suffer a direct hit, almost exactly 15 years after Hurricane Rita destroyed the city. She and her family found an Airbnb hundreds of miles inland.
“The devastation afterward in our town and that whole corner of the state was just awful,” Ms Clements said.
“Whole communities were washed away, never to exist again. So knowing how devastating the storms are, there was no way we were going to stay for this.”
with The Associated Press, Reuters and AFP
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